As a Peer Support Specialist, Michael Roland is part of a unique cadre of people joining VA’s mental health care teams. Peer Support Specialists are Veterans who have successfully dealt with their own mental health recovery for a minimum of one year and successfully completed a program of training and certification. By sharing stories about his personal experience, and remaining actively engaged in his own mental health care, Roland and others like him serve as role models to other Veterans and demonstrate that that recovery from mental illness is possible.
As SAMHSA states, mental health recovery is a journey of healing and transformation enabling a person with mental health problems to live a meaningful life in a community of his or her choice while striving to achieve his or her full potential. Peer support is a critical element of this journey. Connecting with a peer who has a lived experience of mental health recovery provides a sense of belonging, a supportive relationship, and a sense of community with Veterans who are engaged in mental health services.
Roland wants to inspire other Veterans to overcome their challenges, as he had overcome his own. Having been sexually abused at a young age, he buried the shame and the guilt, and focused instead on his military career. After returning home, he faced challenges from the past and present – the past of childhood sexual abuse, and in the present, an ailing father and readjustment issues. Like so many others facing these challenges, Roland turned to alcohol and drugs.
A 2007 stay in the ICU at the John D. Dingell VAMC changed his life forever. His physical health failing, Roland was approached by an inpatient social worker who helped him to enroll in a VA treatment program for Substance Use Disorders (SUD). In November 2007, his recovery journey began with a treatment plan to address both his physical and mental health conditions.
When he lost his vision due to diabetes, SUD program staff ensured that he was successfully enrolled in the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Hines, IL VAMC. At the Center, things were looking up for Roland. Not only did he begin to learn to live with visual impairment, he also found a great support network and started to live a substance-free life.
It was at the Hines VAMC that Roland found his calling to be a Peer Support Specialist. Being a Peer Support Specialist helps Roland stay on the right track and away from substance use. He is able to share his story and experiences with other Veterans, and at the same, is encouraged and humbled by the Veterans he works with. His own recovery journey has taught him how to listen with sympathy and speak with kindness.
As of today, Roland feels excited and privileged about his position as a Peer Support Specialist. He works hard to spread the message that help is available. The VA is there to help. There are people at the VA - both licensed professionals and fellow Veterans like the Peer Support Specialists – waiting to serve with compassion and empathy.
That is what Peer Support is all about - Veterans helping other Veterans.
To learn about how to become a Peer Support Specialist or Apprentice, contact Dan O'Brien-Mazza.
*Mr. Michael Roland has given permission to MH Web Services to post the details of his story and picture.
By Yulissa Chan, VHA Mental Health Web Services